A treasure trove of picture-perfect Americana circa the turn of the last century, and loving brought to the screen with a light nimble magic that positively wreaks of quaint domesticity, Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) is the quintessential 'teenager in love' movie musical from the 1940s. More than that: it is a vintage snapshot of a simpler time with all the maudlin charm of a portrait by Currier & Ives: finely wrought and meticulously crafted. Based on Sally Benson's serialized Kennsington Stories, Meet Me In St. Louis illustrates Minnelli's keen and adaptive eye (his first movie in color), basking in the sumptuousness of Technicolor’s rainbow.
For Meet Me In St. Louis Minnelli brings his set director's eye to bear on an already well exercised fluidity with the camera. Every color has been deliberated upon to exude a memory or to heighten the emotional impact of the story. Minnelli opens each of the four seasons with an idyllic still portrait of the Smith family home; a stately abode that even Sally Benson would have found at odds with her more modest standard of living. In effect, this episodic framing of each season gives the movie what little forward thrust the Irving Brecher/Fred Finklehoffe screenplay lacks.
Meet Me In St. Louis is not a story per say; rather, a series of snippets excised from the Smith family album, lovingly reassembled to extol the virtues of the typical American family unit. Home and hearth were a message perennially anticipated during the war years and even more frequently resurrected for audiences by immigrant founders running the studios who could still look back on that simpler time with fond fading memories of the way things used to be. Victoriana, with its intricate bric a brac and superficial quaintness of social etiquette supplied the warm fuzzy feeling for many a movie throughout the decade.
For his movie, Minnelli went one step further, commissioning the construction of an entire city block of facades built on MGM's lot #2 at considerable expense. The studio had hoped to convince Minnelli to simply redress their already standing (and well used) Andy Hardy Street. But Minnelli went to producer Arthur Freed who, in turn, made the walk up to Louis B. Mayer's front office in the Thalberg Building. Mayer may not have agreed with Minnelli, but he implicitly trusted Freed and so the street was built; handsomely and to Minnelli's specifications.
In the years to follow, the St. Louis St. would play host to many MGM films and even appear as backdrop as a reasonable facsimile of a small town on planet earth during an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. But in Meet Me In St. Louis it becomes the loving evocation of a more elegant America, when society did its high-stepping to a waltz and the nation's hopes were firmly ensconced in their faith in God, progress and ma's homemade apple pie. Ah, those were the days, indeed.
Judy Garland stars as Esther Smith, pining for the affections of John Truett (Tom Drake), the antiseptically handsome boy next door. Esther lives with her mother, Anna (Mary Astor) and father, Lon (Leon Ames), eldest sister Rose (Lucille Bremer), two younger sisters; Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), brother Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniel), grandpa (Harry Davenport) and their devoted, though slightly curmudgeonly maid, Katie (Marjorie Main). It's all rather cozy, with Rose's long distance engagement to the aloof Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully) – her hurt disappointment at his initial lack of interest and their penultimate marriage proposal - that book-ends the story.
Minnelli fills the intervening two hours with vignettes that celebrate the closeness of the Smith family: Tootie's morbid affectation for burying her beloved dolls, each to whom she ascribes a fatal disease; Esther's coyly humorous attempts to get John to notice her; Mrs. Smith and Katie's struggle of wills to produce the perfect ketchup, Tootie's nightmarish impressions of a rather tame Halloween, and so on. But the family's serenity is threatened when Mr. Smith's law firm decides to permanently send him to New York. The move will be devastating to everyone; particularly Esther. As everyone struggles to reconcile the sheer love they have for their home town with the obvious affections they share with one another the time draws near for this bittersweet farewell; coinciding with the family’s last Christmas in St. Louis.
This inevitably becomes the movie’s most heartwarming and heartrending vignette. Their belongings already in a semi-state of being packed away, Esther returns home after having been proposed to by John. She discovers Tootie awake and staring down from her upstairs bedroom window at the snow people she has built in the backyard. Garland sings the stirringly poetic 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' (one of only four original songs written for the movie) with such pang and sadness that it is impossible not to develop a lump in the throat, or at the very least, a tear in the eye.
Overwhelmed with grief, Tootie destroys her beloved snow people in her nightgown, declaring that if she can't have them no one will. Realizing how detrimental the move will be on everyone, Mr. Smith convenes the family (half asleep) in the living room and informs them that he has decided to stay put. Warren Sheffield bursts in on the grateful clan, emphatically declaring that he has decided to marry Rose. As the family rejoices, a tearful Mrs. Smith sets herself apart - her tender/tearful and beautifully understated happiness is caught by Lon who has come to stand at her side.
In this, Meet Me In St. Louis achieves a sort of heroic verisimilitude quite unlike anything seen in an MGM musical - or any other for that matter. We can feel ourselves cheer with pride for the benevolent patriarch, the cathartic release of emotions embraced by everyone just as the Smiths, having come to the brink of severing all ties with the only home they have ever known, are restored to prominence in their rightful place on Kensington Ave.
'There's no place like home' was the popular message of another Garland classic: The Wizard of Oz (1939) and it resurfaces in Meet Me In St. Louis as a message clearly embraced by MGM's mogul L.B. Mayer. And, like 'Oz', Meet Me In St. Louis is a showcase for its star, Judy Garland. And yet Garland almost did not do the film. Tired of playing girls, Garland had her first taste of being an adult 'woman' opposite Gene Kelly in For Me And My Gal. She was also perhaps concerned about being overshadowed by the scene stealing antics of pint size Margaret O'Brien. Whatever her concerns, Garland was coaxed into doing the part.
Her working relationship with Vincente Minnelli began rather apprehensively. Indeed, Minnelli would later comment that he never quite knew whether or not he was 'getting through' to Garland because she remains somewhat aloof while listening to his instructions. However, when the cameras rolled Garland became the pitch perfect pro that everyone - including Minnelli expected. As she came to trust her director more, Garland also began to fall in love with him. By the end of the shoot Minnelli proposed and soon thereafter the two were married.
Viewed today, Meet Me In St. Louis retains its intangible magic. Unlike conventional musicals, the joy in this film is to be found in its characterizations. The plot is incidental. Irving Brecher and Fred Finkelhoffe's screenplay is a meandering stroll through a year in the life of the Smiths, with Hugh Martin and Ralph Blanes' four original songs augmenting a vintage catalogue of standards that heighten, while remaining faithful to the overall poignancy of the entire score. And Garland is perfect indeed as Esther: arguably her finest hour in a musical. Hence, in the final analysis, Meet Me In St. Louis is, and arguably will always remain, what so many musicals aspire to but rarely attain – undiluted, sparkling magic.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray is curious. It seems the DVD was so impeccably mastered that the Blu-ray's improvements are negligible at best. Side by side comparisons reveal the obvious: a tightening up of the image with improvements in fine detail. But color fidelity seems a tad overly saturated on this Blu-ray - adopting a slightly reddish hue. I'm not entirely certain I care for this, nor am I certain it was the way the movie originally looked upon its theatrical release. The warmness of the color just seems off to my eyes. I'll leave it at that, but still insist that the improvements to the image overall far outweigh this minor complaint. The DTS 5.1 Dolby Digital stereo has been remixed from original audio stems - revealing subtle acoustic differences between the Blu-ray and previously issued DVD that are mostly indistinguishable.
I'm not sure what ticks me off more - Warner's disastrous cover art (that replaces the vintage stylized calligraphy with some truly awful photo shopped lettering and a stock image of a house that IS NOT the Smith family home) or the fact that the back jacket DOES NOT list even a third of the extra features included. Just to be clear: the Blu-ray contains ALL of the extras from Warner's 2 disc DVD (The Making of An American Classic, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, Becoming Attractings: The Films of Judy Garland, an audio commentary, isolated score, stills gallery and trailers). Only the audio commentary, 40 page booklet and CD sampler are listed as extras. Dumb!
The 40 page booklet is deceiving. It's big on artwork but scant on behind the scenes info - pretty to look at but none too engaging overall. The CD sampler is, frankly, a waste of time and disc space. We get four songs totaling less than 15 min. Warner has repeatedly included such CDs as 'extra' content on deluxe and vintage Blu-ray titles. My personal philosophy is that only complete soundtracks should be included. I understand the marketing behind doing it this way. Whet the consumer appetite with a few 'samples' and hope they run out to buy the complete soundtrack album. I said, I understand it. I don't respect it - especially since buying the complete soundtrack renders this 'sampler' moot - a Frisbee disc.
Bottom line: Meet Me In St. Louis is a cinematic treasure. It belongs on everyone's top shelf.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)